The return of Overlook and a zombie cinema

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 05/31/2019

This weekend, the Overlook Film Festival, the venerated horror-themed event, returns this weekend for its second year in New Orleans, bringing its program of horror films, panels, immersive experiences, V.R. content, and a master class by Robert Rodriguez. Contemporary horror is pushing technical as well as storytelling boundaries, and we’re excited to set up the screening venue in Le Petit Théâtre, which is a great place to see a film as well as being one of the city’s foremost live theater venues.

This weekend will also be your last chance in the foreseeable future to catch a film at Cinebarre, the other main Overlook screening venue, located in the Canal Place mall. This is because, as of last week, the nine-screen venue has been closed by its corporate parent, Regal, who didn’t even manage to leave a note on the door, turn off the lights, or stop the walk-in music from playing. A shuttered (or even empty) movie theater can be a surreal place, and this one is no exception. But it seems appropriate to show horror films in a zombie cinema, yes?

Fortunately, despite the hasty departure, all scheduled Overlook screenings will still take place on the third floor at Canal Place, but the departure of Cinebarre leaves New Orleans in a surprisingly dire moviegoing position. With Zeitgeist’s move to Arabi earlier this year, the city of New Orleans is left with only five current movie screens at two locations: one at the Prytania and four at the Broad Theatre. (We’re working to remedy that, but more on this later.)

We understand that the closing of Cinebarre was a corporately motivated decision and we sympathize with all the workers affected by it. But if you’re like me, you won’t be surprised or really even sad to see it go. Before Hurricane Katrina, the cinema was operated by Landmark Theatres and garnered a solid reputation as an arthouse that persists to this day among those who lived in the city at that time. I did not live here then, and it’s sometimes a bit heartbreaking to hear the Landmark version of Canal Place so wistfully remembered by many types of people.

Ten years ago, the cinema was expanded—into Southern Rep Theatre’s performance space, which set them out on an odyssey of homelessness that has only recently ended—and divided from four into the current nine screens. At this point they went fully digital, automating all shows, hanging digital projectors in insulated boxes in the ceilings of the screening rooms, and installing playback equipment in closets instead of projection booths. Most significantly, The Theatres at Canal Place, which was the previous occupant of the Cinebarre space, placed themselves on the front lines of the sort of moviegoing experience where the movie itself is decidedly secondary, and the cinema becomes combination of living room and airport terminal, with towering reclining seats, mediocre and overpriced food, and lights kept mostly on in order to order, receive, and eat the food. Some chains, like Alamo Drafthouse, have become successful with this model by retaining better programming, projection, and food.

But the last time I saw a movie at Canal Place illustrated the shortcomings of the model vividly. The film was Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker renowned for his visual precision. But the lights were only brought down about halfway, washing out the image onscreen. In order to avoid having to crane our necks over tall seats, our party sat in the front row, making it real obvious that the image was out of focus and alignment. The only other patrons were a couple who also sat in the front row, ordered a steak lunch and a bottle of wine, took a picture of the food with a flash, and complained loudly about their $100-plus bill as the credits rolled. Needless to say, with experiences like this, I won’t be missing the place too much.

But lest you think I’m just complaining, I ask you: who wants to have an experience like the above? What are we looking for when we engage in this type of moviegoing?

Anecdotally I’ve talked a lot recently about the new style of oversized, ultra-comfortable seats, which for some theatres have noticeably improved attendance. The desire of people to sit in a recliner that swallows them up might reflect the conventional view that people just want to sit in a chair nicer than theirs at home and not have to answer to anybody for a couple hours. But there’s something more to it, because still, we go to the cinema, and we want certain standards even if the corporate owners themselves don’t respect them.

One sensation I love about watching films is the feeling of being alone together: everyone having their own experience yet somehow aware that it is shared. Among other gifts, horror films are exceptionally good at accentuating that feeling, and are being more and more rewarded for it in commercial theaters and the broader culture, perhaps as alone-togetherness becomes a less common experience. Events like Overlook and the New Orleans Horror Film Festival are building loyal, adventurous audiences in part because these films deliver this very social phenomenon.

So perhaps we’ll see you at an Overlook screening this weekend. As a bonus, if you go to Canal Place, you can see what it looks like with the lights turned down all the way.

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